The student make-up of your average classroom has changed so dramatically over the past few decades that it is barely recognizable. So why are reformists suggesting we go “back to basics”? Why not go forward?
In a recent article, Mr. Zwaagstra, a representative for a group called Common Sense Education, says that teachers need to stop treating students like individuals and instead, focus on the subject:
Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.
Quick question, Mr. Zwaagstra: when was the last time YOU, or any of your Common Sense Educating peers, were in a classroom? I’m not talking about a homogeneous grade 11 Chemistry class where all of the students have already met the pre-requisites. That’s a challenging job but it’s not the same as teaching in a mixed abilities classroom.
I’m talking about a public school elementary or middle school classroom, where integration is fully in place.
Let me paint you a little picture I like to call “reality”.
It’s September and you have been assigned a class of 30 beautiful grade 4 children. You can tell already that they are nice kids and you want to do your absolute best to help them be the best they can be.
Besides yourself, you have a one teacher’s aid (or EPA) assigned to work one-on-one with a high needs student in your class.
There are thirty (30) students in your room. Six (6) have Individual Plans (meaning they are at least 2 grade levels behind their peers and have specific goals designed to help them improve), four (4) have Behavior Plans (this means they are disruptive to themselves, the teacher and the rest of the class), and five (5) have Adaptations, meaning they can meet the outcomes if they have a special accommodation in place. These adaptations can vary wildly, from making sure the student sits at the front of the room to having someone to write down everything they want to say because they have a writing disability. (Note: Some children have more than one of these plans in place.)
That makes 15 children who need some sort of individualized support. Half your class.
Now, let’s go deeper. Those six children with Individual Plans? They are all different. They are as different as you and I, which means their plans are different.
One boy, who is big for his age, has severe autism and operates at a 3-year-old level, needing support for toileting and all other personal needs. He shouts out when he gets upset or overwhelmed or just plain excited and has been known to bite. He has EPA support and spends part of his day in the learning centre.
One boy has Asperger syndrome, which means he misses a lot of the social cues that his peers understand. This often results in hurt feelings and social unrest. He also cannot complete his work with one-on-one support. He does not have an EPA.
Two children are multiple grade levels behind in their math and two others can barely read at a grade 1 level. They do not have EPA support either.
Let’s see, what’s next?
Oh right. Behavioural issues.
One of your students lives in foster care, having suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of his parents and grandparents. At any given time, he could be crawling on the floor, barking like a dog, or snuggling in close, asking you to “please, please be my mommy.” The next minute he tells you to f-off and the struggle to remove him from the classroom, once again, begins. He does not have an EPA.
And remember, he’s only one of four students with his own behaviour plan. And they are all different. Some have ADHD, which may mean they are all over the place or it may mean they are completely introverted. You will figure out which is which pretty quickly.
What about the other 15?
A few of these kids are your very bright and very independent learners. They are usually placed at the back of the room because the front is needed for the kids who need one-on-one support and special cueing. They are usually bored senseless because you have to go over the same lesson 3 times when they have already gotten it the first time.
Finally, you have your so-called average kids who will do their work and make A’s and B’s and fly under the radar all year, unless you purposely make it your mission to focus on them.
That’s your class. I’ll admit…it’s a challenging one but sadly, it’s not unusual.
So, tell me, how do you focus on the subject and not the student when you have such a rich, diverse group of learners? How do you put aside everything you know about the child as a learner and just say, “The heck with it. I’m teaching one lesson, one way and if you don’t get it, too bad.”
How is this common sense?